New frontier of bio-tech farming

A Satoyama Farm staff attending to plants grown in soil enriched with bamboo char chips.

A Satoyama Farm staff attending to plants grown in soil enriched with bamboo char chips.

A NEW soil platform, known as living soil, is providing a relatively pristine and inexpensive method to grow plants and rear animals.

By using this new method of bio-technology, it is possible to avoid chemical and harmful inputs in the soil, according to Chan Thye Huat, technical advisor of Satoyama Farm Sdn in Kuching.

At the Farm, living soil is enriched by compost, harvested from there, to generate soil micro-organism activities within this new soil medium. It is through such activities that the symbiotic relationship between plants and micro-organisms is created.

Satoyama Farm uses bamboo biochar as a planting medium but not 100 per cent as 10 to 50 per cent of the biochar is mixed with sand and soil to create a new soil platform known as living soil.

“Basically, it’s bio-technology farming or natural farming,” Chan told thesundaypost.

Living soil is defined as a functional ecosystem of soil critters and microbes that interact with plants to naturally promote healthy growth.

It is the key to sustainable soil structure management and fertility and among the benefits are nutrition, high vitality, drought tolerance, low pollution and greenhouse-friendliness.

Biochar is charcoal produced from plant matter and stored in the soil as a means of removing carbon dioxide (Co2) from the atmosphere.

Emphasis on sustainability

Chan said in the new frontier of natural farming, the emphasis was on the production of renewable and sustainable NPK — nitrogen, phosphorous and potash (potassium) — by micro-organisms — plus a huge host of beneficial nutrients that chemically induced soil media cannot provide.

He added that natural soil science had revealed the existence of an efficient, sustainable and self-renewable living micro-organism system that would remove dependency on harmful and expensive chemical inputs.

Chan said Satoyama Farm developed this technology to help the rural communities elevate rural agriculture to the forefront of renewable and sustainable argo industries with enriched soil fertility, effectively doing away with the reliance on foreign inputs.

He is optimistic this method of bio-tech farming is suitable for rural farmers in the state to produce healthy food at cheaper costs.

“This will liberate rural economies and transform them into a powerhouse of naturally-farmed food source for urban communities. Food security will, thus, become affordable — with all the health benefits thrown in.”

Chan explains how tap water can be further purified, using bamboo biochar chips.

Chan explains how tap water can be further purified, using bamboo biochar chips.

Agro bio-technology hub

Chan believed the niche future was to produce less expensive healthy food and turn Sarawak into a downstream cutting edge agro bio-technology hub accessible to urban communities in Asia.

According to him, Satoyama Farm has invested time and money over the past one year to iron out all the key issues on the practicality of bio-tech agriculture, especially its application on a larger scale to the state’s farming sector.

“We will start with the rural communities this year by working to transform their economy with appropriate certification — from the soil up to food security and the regional supply chain.”

Chan said it was not expensive to produce bamboo biochar as the initial cost usually amounted to an investment in a kiln.

“The local rural communities are rich in biomass which can be easily converted into biochar on a daily basis. The turn-around of a simple daily production is about eight hours.”

In a light vein, he said all it cost to start the burning process for producing biochar was one match stick — or the single flick of a lighter — while the rest of the expenses would go into collecting the biomass and the labour to do it.

Satoyama Farm’s kiln has an average capacity to produce about 40 kgs of bamboo biochar per cycle, using dried bamboo biomass waste. To sustain the supply of biochar, the Farm relies on the tropical giant bamboo species planted on the nearby vacant land.

Bio-sequester

According to Chan, the bamboo clumps serve as a bio-sequester to mitigate climate change by capturing an equivalent concentration of carbon dioxide (Co2) from the atmosphere and converting it into cellulose biomass (in the form of bamboo clumps).

“To lock the carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere, we use a kiln, designed by our engineering team, that is very simple and mobile to use in-situ wherever bamboo clumps are located.

“The kiln uses a two-stage thermochemical heat to convert the bamboo biomass in a chamber void of oxygen. This is achieved by using waste biomass from the bamboo harvest and burning it in the kiln known as Stage One heat exchange.

Heating biomass in a zero-oxygen environment to tremperatures of 250 agrees Celcius or greater yields energy-rich gases and liquids and a solid charcoal or char.

So once the heat in the kiln’s internal chamber exceeds 280 degrees Celsius, the ethanol gas, developed through the heat, is ignited, allowing for a retort pyrolysis heat to take over — a process that chemically decomposes organic matter by heat in the absence of oxygen and takes place typically under pressure and at operating temperatires of above 430 degrees Celsius.

“This is Stage Two of the heat exchange,” Chan said.

He pointed out that from the second stage onwards, the heat would increase to over 400 degrees Celsius, generated by gas from the internal chamber gas.

“No further use of external heat source is required. The gas will burn until it is depleted. At that stage, the bamboo biomass in the chamber will have been converted into high quality biochar carbon.”

He said after the kiln had cooled down, the internal bamboo biochar would be removed and the heat allowed to subside before the biochar was crushed and used in soil enrichment, animal feed, atmosphere moisture control and waste water management, among others.

“It’s a very low technology application designed from a high technology. Simple to use and very mobile. It can be transported on a pickup and delivered to any rural environment where there is a high concentration of bamboo clumps,” he added.

Plants grown using soil enriched with bamboo biochar chips.

Plants grown using soil enriched with bamboo biochar chips.

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